One of the most interesting offerings in this year’s Migrating Forms festival didn’t always feel like a film at all. Roughly half of Naeem Mohaiemen’s The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) was sound, with the text projected on a black screen. With red, green, and white subtitles to help the audience identify the different voices of the speakers, the overall effect was like listening in on a private conversation or wiretap.
The images, when they did appear, didn’t create a narrative as much as a time capsule. The limited archival footage seemed to play on a loop, but if Mohaiemen did in fact encounter a scarcity of archival material to draw on, he’s turned it to his advantage; he has frozen time, making the few images last and permeate our imaginations with a power that’s hard to experience nowadays, in the 24-hour news cycle that constantly feeds us new visuals.
The documentary captures the few days in 1977 when Mohaiemen, then an eight year old in Bangladesh, became a witness to a high-stakes political event: An airplane hijacked by the Japanese Red Army had landed in Dhaka. Mohaiemen, as he wittingly tells it, was about to watch his favorite television show, The Zoo Gang (of which he includes a few clips), when the TV channel began relaying the hijackers’ demands to the Japanese government via a Bangladeshi negotiator.
What followed was a careful dance between the hijacker speaking on behalf of the Japanese communist militant group proclaiming the need for armed violence, and the men in the airport control tower negotiating the release of the hostages. Although the chief negotiator remains faceless and bodiless, our experience of him coming only through his voice, the story we follow is at least partly his: We hear his exasperation, his expressing his private doubts, or urgently, and later desperately, calling on the airport personnel to block the plane from leaving.
What emerges is part psychological drama, with increasingly high stakes as the hijackers become exasperated with waiting for their demands to be met and threaten to execute the remaining hostages, and part a meditation on the event as a unique media spectacle, whose power extends far beyond its historical significance. “In the memory hall,” Mohaiemen says, “it is always 1977.” What he’s getting at seems more significant than a mere assertion of the power that memory has over us, infusing some images with uncanny permanence, while blurring others. It’s rather our capacity to “write” ourselves, imaginatively speaking, into our country’s respective histories, almost as if they had happened to us personally. In this sense, history is about identification, and so becomes a part of our identity.
Mohaiemen’s closing point is particularly poignant. While he, like many others, was captivated by the flashy drama unfolding on the tarmac, more impactful local forces were already converging: On the same day as the plane took off with the hijackers and remaining hostages on board, the Bangladesh air force officers staged an unsuccessful coup, which later led to massive secret killings, including of air force officers. In this way, Mohaiemen says, stressing the unpredictability but also the fatefulness of history, “tourists became hostages became witnesses.” In a metaphorical sense, so did he.
Migrating Forms ran from May 11—20. For more information click here.